19 Is the New 60, When It Comes to Activity Levels

A recent Johns Hopkins study found that today’s kids are so inactive that by the time they reach 19 they have the activity level of 60-year-olds. I have a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, “19 is the New 60,” looking at childhood sluggishness and making one blindingly simple suggestion. But first off:

Why are kids so sedentary? On top of the lure of electronics, which the Hopkins study recognized, there’s another unaddressed reason: The belief that kids must spend all their free time in supervised activities (and, often being driven to and from them).

Senior [Hopkins] author Vadim Zipunnikov said: ‘Activity levels at the end of adolescence were alarmingly low, and by age 19, they were comparable to 60-year-olds.

‘For school-age children, the primary window for activity was the afternoon between two and six P.M.

‘So the big question is how do we modify daily schedules, in schools for example, to be more conducive to increasing physical activity?’

 
The big answer is: We come up with a way to get kids playing again. To that end, we try to re-normalize going outside without an adult. We do this by pointing out that most kids are NOT in constant danger when they leave the house. Crime is down since we were kids, and we got to play. It builds agile minds and bodies. Let’s do it!
But until that approach works its magic, here is another great idea for how to get kids moving WHILE keeping them supervised enough to assuage parental fears:
OPEN THE SCHOOL’S GYM AND PLAYGROUND FOR “AFTER-SCHOOL RECESS.”
Put out some balls and other things, like cardboard boxes, and chalk. Have an adult somewhere on the premises (with an epi-pen), acting less like a coach or teacher, more like a lifeguard. And then: let the kids figure out their own games, deal with their own disputes, and play the whole afternoon. This was we solve almost every problem at once:
1 – There are other kids around to play with.
2- There is an adult nearby in case of emergencies.
3 – Kids come up with their own fun, teaching them social skills, focus, communication, imagination…
4 – When kids run around they run around. They actually move more than in organized sports.
5 – No one has to drive them anywhere!
6 – Parents, even those in dangerous neighborhoods, know that their children are safe after school.
When I spoke at the Hamlin School in San Francisco, a very lovely private school, Head of School Wanda Holland Greene was already doing this. She understood that if kids go home, they may not venture out again, and if they did, they might not find anyone else to play with. So they play at the school.
This is a SIMPLE, ALMOST FREE solution. And as I say in The Journal:

This solution is also good for kids’ mental health. Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College and author of “Free to Learn,” says that as play has declined, kids have become more anxious and depressed.

…Mr. Gray makes a persuasive case that kids lose their “locus of control” when adults take over more of their time—driving them, teaching them, watching them. But during free play, the kids make the rules and decisions. There’s a strong connection between happiness and feeling in control of life.

Long story short: Adults should stop stealing away the time kids need to play. Give it back and they won’t become so old so young.

IF YOUR SCHOOL WOULD LIKE TO CONSIDER AN AFTER-SCHOOL, FREE-PLAY RECESS PROGRAM, PLEASE LET ME KNOW! I’d be happy to talk to anyone there, and might want to document it! Thanks!  – L.
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I’ll race you to the drinking fountain!

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30 Responses to 19 Is the New 60, When It Comes to Activity Levels

  1. Dienne August 11, 2017 at 11:26 am #

    The woman in that picture probably appreciates that you think she’s sixty. She’s probably closer to 80.

  2. lollipoplover August 11, 2017 at 12:04 pm #

    The problem with opening up the playground and gym after school is that it is already being used-for those who PAY for it- at school aftercare programs.

    It is off limits to non-paying customers (my kids).
    They’d love to play but are not allowed to stay on school property unless they are enrolled and “pay-to-play”. So my 10 yo bikes home and will play with the other kids or make plans to meet up somewhere else. We are fortunate to have quite a few kids her age in the neighborhood that she routinely plays with…when she doesn’t have a ton of homework. I’d argue that too much homework for young kids is a factor in lack of free play, among the other reasons mentioned.

  3. John B. August 11, 2017 at 12:04 pm #

    This is really sad and I’d like nothing more than to see this reversed to get kids moving again. Even if it’s a 21st century version of getting kids to move on their own. I think this is why data tells us that American kids are not as physically fit as they used to be.

    Back when I was a kid in the 1960s, pick-up games were common place. I remember us BOYS at St. John’s Catholic school had a pick-up tackle football game with the boys from St. John’s Lutheran school located just one block away. Ironically enough, we held the game in a lot right next to the Catholic cemetery so I guess you could say we had the home field advantage….LOL. But no adult was present and none of us kids wore padding. We all had a great time AND, BTW, us Catholic boys won the game! 😉 But it was all in good fun. Yea, us kids suffered a few bruises and a bit of bleeding from some scrapes on the dirt but we all survived. No fights broke out and we were all good friends after the game.

    I don’t think you’d ever see anything like that today without some stupid adult calling the police at the site of kids tackling each other without a helmet and shoulder pads and no adult present.

  4. Sally August 11, 2017 at 12:06 pm #

    OH but no way can this be done…. What about insurance issues? If a kid stubs their toe and the parents sue? Who will be checking IDs so that the evil men (as they are always men) aren’t watching our kids? And who will be making sure that our kids are always over hydrated? And don’t bring any toys with strings longer than 9 inches?
    Oh the calamity!!! The chaos that will ensue?

  5. Amy August 11, 2017 at 12:25 pm #

    Neighbors and Neighborhoods are very different from when I was growing up. Everyone was outside, even the adults. People knew each other and socialized. It was no big deal for kids to just come home, even if a parents wasn’t home you could just go an hang out at a friend’s who had an adult there. When we got old enough to stay home alone, as long as we called one of our parents at work we were free to go out and play/hang out, but don’t stray far from the house. Same thing in the summer, we could be trusted. Part of the the problem now kids are always in some sort of daycare or after care. How much exercise and fun can they get there.

  6. Jon Mikelonis August 11, 2017 at 12:31 pm #

    I live in a mostly homogenized golf community in Northern Nevada. It was nice at first but the processed nature of it all has worn on me as a father of two boys ages 11 and 9. The leaf blowers (arghhh). It’s ok if a leaf is on the sidewalk, adds texture!

    However, I do notice something special happening at least from my home office window. The kids here are playing unsupervised in a retro-way in the afternoons and oldest boy’s teacher supplements class with her own physical ed. I believe it’s the result of many parents with irregular schedules and loose attitudes about structure. I don’t think it’s typical but maybe things are reversing for the good.

  7. BL August 11, 2017 at 12:39 pm #

    @John B
    “I don’t think you’d ever see anything like that today without some stupid adult calling the police at the site of kids tackling each other without a helmet and shoulder pads and no adult present.”

    I know game like that were played in my childhood, but at least at recess during school hours the rules were “touch football”, no tackling. Grumblegrumblegrumble.

    @lollipoplover
    “It is off limits to non-paying customers (my kids).
    They’d love to play but are not allowed to stay on school property unless they are enrolled and “pay-to-play”.”

    @Sally
    “OH but no way can this be done…. What about insurance issues? If a kid stubs their toe and the parents sue? Who will be checking IDs so that the evil men (as they are always men) aren’t watching our kids? And who will be making sure that our kids are always over hydrated? And don’t bring any toys with strings longer than 9 inches?
    Oh the calamity!!! The chaos that will ensue?”

    I wonder how we managed to do all those things without everyone going nuts about every little injury (and they happened). I was too young to be thinking about insurance in those days, but in my earliest years, in suburban Detroit, we could all use the playground outside of school hours. And we did. Playground equipment, kid-organized games, general running around. It was a neighborhood of starter homes, so our yards weren’t so big.
    Adults sometimes used it too. At one end (away from the playground equipment) some men used to hit golf balls. Some others had radio-controlled airplanes they flew at the school.

    Interestingly, we really weren’t all that visible to our parents on the playground. We mostly lived south and west of the playground. To the south (where I lived, adjoining school property) the school building itself stood between the houses and the playground. From the west, the playground was visible, but over a distance – there was a wide field, in those days a swampy field (since filled in and turned into a park), so from there we were little specks in the distance. The east was some much older houses (our immediate neighborhood was quite new) with older people who rarely appeared to us. To the north, backyard fences with considerable vegetation blocking any good view of the playground. That was another school district, anyway.

  8. Rae Pica August 11, 2017 at 2:17 pm #

    This breaks my heart. I’ve been acting as “Paul Revere” where this issue is concerned for years! I thought perhaps when the childhood obesity crisis hit, we might see some change. But apparently that was too much to hope for. I appreciate everything you do, Lenore. I just don’t know what it’s going to take.

  9. James Pollock August 11, 2017 at 2:42 pm #

    Obviously, parents today aren’t signing their kids up for enough sports leagues.

  10. Crazy Cat Lady August 11, 2017 at 2:53 pm #

    WHAT? DON’T TURN ON THE SPRINKLERS 20 MINUTES AFTER CLASSES ARE DONE? Crazy talk there….those sprinklers need to go on and the kids need to LEAVE..

    That happens at the school down the road from me. My youngest son’s school says that all kids MUST be picked up within 5 minutes of their last class. This is a homeschooling partnership school so the kids do not all leave at the same time. Kids can take the transit bus….but they need to wait by the bus stop sign. Even if it is a half hour until the bus comes.

  11. SKL August 11, 2017 at 3:53 pm #

    This wouldn’t work where a lot of kids are bused though. Unless all the parents agreed that the buses should run a couple hours later. (Which might be possible.)

  12. Papilio August 11, 2017 at 4:24 pm #

    “(and, often being driven to and from them)”

    Don’t forget to address that, too! And of course I’m thinking of…: https://youtu.be/swqaAIkGtpA?t=64

    Also, ehm, Lenore… My mother is actually 60 and the picture looks more like *her* mom… I could send her the pic and tell her you think that’s what 60-year-olds look like, but I like you too much for that 😛

  13. Anna August 11, 2017 at 4:47 pm #

    An important point missing here (unless you include it, behind the paywall in the original article): abolish homework, at least until junior high! If we want kids running around playing, it’s contradictory to send them home with stuff they’re supposed to do sitting at a desk, after they’ve already done so for 7 or 8 hours.

    If Michelle Obama had really cared about child obesity and activity levels, advocating against homework would have been a lot more to the point that trying to created in-school garden projects.

  14. Jill August 11, 2017 at 5:02 pm #

    The woman in the photo looks about eighty.

  15. Dienne August 11, 2017 at 5:15 pm #

    Good points, Anna. Especially considering there is absolutely no research that shows any benefit to homework before the high school level. In fact, the research shows detrimental effects of homework in terms of family conflict, widening of socioeconomic gaps, increase in child behavior problems and, as you point out, sedentary lifestyles and obesity.

  16. lollipoplover August 11, 2017 at 5:25 pm #

    @Anna- I agree with the homework comment. When my youngest daughter bikes home from school with a bunch of kids, many of them are under strict orders to do their homework first, then they get free play time. My daughter prefers free play first after being cooped up so long but she’s one of few.

    There still are many pick-up games around here. Having a decent basketball court (in our driveway) helps to get kids outside …they follow the constant dribble of the ball and there always seems to be games going. We also have an inexpensive outdoor summer rec league for basketball at 8pm under the lights at our local park. There are kids waiting to jump on the courts for pick-up games after, always. Temps are cooler at night and the courts are right behind the police station so most parents consider it a very safe place for kids to meet. My teens love the league- kids run the games, divide teams up, etc.

    There seems to be a shortage of free and welcoming places for kids to play. Especially tweens and teens…

  17. Donald August 11, 2017 at 5:27 pm #

    “…Mr. Gray makes a persuasive case that kids lose their “locus of control” when adults take over more of their time—driving them, teaching them, watching them. But during free play, the kids make the rules and decisions. There’s a strong connection between happiness and feeling in control of life.”

    Locus of control (LOC) is the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events in their lives. We keep developing this throughout our entire life as we steer towards an external LOC or an internal one.

    Internal LOC = I am in control
    External LOC = an external force controls my life and is the foundation of the feeling of helplessness. This manifests as either sadness or anger. People can become angry as they fight against those that they feel are controlling their life or the reason for their unhappiness. A person can move their LOC from external to internal. This doesn’t happen from simply wanting it. This comes from mental conditioning and mental exercise. It’s a lifelong journey and starts at birth.

    If mom drives the children to school, this conditions the LOC to be more external. An external force (mom take me to school) must occur. If a preschooler makes something, ANYTHING (picture frame with glued macaroni and painted with glitter) then this helps the LOC to become more internal. I.E. I made something happen through my skills and will.

  18. Amy August 11, 2017 at 5:43 pm #

    Totally agree, way too much homework! Homework isn’t necessary until 9th or 10th grade. I never got tons of homework and I graduated college and have a pretty great job!

  19. Roberta August 11, 2017 at 5:44 pm #

    It’s depressing, but the problem is bigger than just giving kids more free time. They live in a different culture than we did. The rate of activity is based on our culture, and the collective change is beyond our control. I have always been a free range parent and did everything I could to push my kids outside, but as soon as I step back and let them make their own choices (free range, right?) they are in their rooms or on the couch, locked into the social network and virtual neighborhood they are collaboratively constructing through their smart phones, computers, and other media devices. I don’t understand it. Don’t like it. But unless I schedule outdoor time for them – and proactively coordinate with their friends’ parents to manufacture the kind of experience I want them to have – that is, move their arms and legs for them – they will not venture on. They are following their friends indoors, as well as a he lure of the screen. I have been fighting it for years, but a free range parent respects their kids autonomy over their time and needs to step back and stop intervening. For better or for worse, the metrics are going to change. I would only like to know that my kids are driven by curiosity and friendship to stay indoors, rather than constrainrs imposed on them.

  20. Mya Greene August 11, 2017 at 7:48 pm #

    1. We also need to expand on public transportation, and pedestrian infrastructure. Where I live, in Los Angeles, it is very hard to travel long distances without a car. Whenever I have visited Europe, I noticed that it was possible to either walk or bike almost anywhere. It also didn’t take ages to get somewhere by train or bus. I have been walk down the middle of “busy” streets and count on one hand how many cars have passed by.

    2. I think we need to put the concept of brain development into further perspective. By far the most common argument I hear for the infantilization of youth, and against a return to the prior state of free-range living is,

    “We now know that the brain isn’t finished developing until 25.”

    What people don’t realize is that 1. Everyone’s brain is different, and 2., Even if everyone developed along a similar trajectory, the average person doesn’t need a fully developed brain ( whatever that means ) to learn at an early age, the basic self-care skills that were so common just a few decades ago, and 3. Cultural expectations influence to an extent which connections happen in the brain, and which get thrown away.

    People use this as an all-purpose, catch-all argument, and it can be very hard to stand up to, especially when humans love to think things are black-and-white, and not gradual.

    It’s either “fully developed brain”, or “brain dead”, no in-between, with most people. How do we fix this?

  21. Anna August 11, 2017 at 9:56 pm #

    ‘ I think we need to put the concept of brain development into further perspective. By far the most common argument I hear for the infantilization of youth, and against a return to the prior state of free-range living is,

    “We now know that the brain isn’t finished developing until 25.”’

    So true! I have a neighbor whose kids are continually vandalizing our property, tormenting our (much younger) child, and teasing our dogs, and half the problem is the mom’s unthinking faith in “neuroscience” – i.e., her kids can’t possibly learn that it’s wrong to hurt other people or destroy their property because – recent studies on brain development!!!! It never seems to occur to her that her actions (or her failure to act) might actually affect their brain development one way or the other.

  22. Bella Englebach August 11, 2017 at 10:15 pm #

    I’m 60, and I walk 10,000 steps a day. Sometimes more.

  23. Becky August 12, 2017 at 12:23 am #

    Our school playground is open 24-7 and parents who pick up their kids often linger and talk as the kids play–without the rules imposed at recess. I have seen some really cool cooperation and interesting games played. I never even thought about it as a free-range thing, but really it is. And the after care kids come out later (once they’ve done homework) and just join in. It’s a small school so it works.

    As for homework, just don’t do it. We have done that for 2 years now, and there have been no consequences other than my daughter getting to do great things that she initiates or getting out to the woods or the beach. If there were consequences, I’d go in and argue about it. No reason to sit and do stuff that was already done in school. And really, how can school dictate what children do after school???? That’s their time. Same with summer. I imagine that the more people who take this stance, the more likely schools will be to get rid of homework. Though I have come across many parents who think it’s important, sadly. I was even told by one that it’s rude to the teacher to just not do it. I am certainly not going to ruin my daughter’s life to avoid potentially being rude.

  24. James Pollock August 12, 2017 at 5:58 am #

    “As for homework, just don’t do it.”

    Correction. Do enough to be sure you’ve mastered it. One of the worst things that can happen is that you blow off the homework when you don’t really need it, because you understand the subject without needing to do the homework… and then you eventually run into a class (or several classes) where you really do need to do the homework, but you’ve got the habit of blowing off the homework.

    For me,. math always came easy, and I never really needed to do the homework. Then I took calculus in my first term at university, with 200 other people in a big lecture theater, and… I didn’t get it just by being in the room while the professor talked about it. I didn’t do the homework, either. I flunked the class. I took it again, still didn’t do the homework, and managed a D. Then I didn’t take any more math until after I finished my second degree, and happened to find the right instructor. Oh, yeah, and along the way… I learned when to do homework.

    I don’t know how the local grade school handles its playground today. I do know how they handled it 10 to 15 years ago. After school, kids had to leave the school. They didn’t have to go home, necessarily, but they had to leave and go SOMEWHERE. Then, they could turn around and come right back. We also had an afterschool-care program in our school. They “owned” the cafeteria after school, they did not “own” the playground. There would be a combination of kids who were just there, kids who were in the after-school daycare program, and kids who were on the athletic fields which were managed by the local recreation district (and therefore reserved for X soccer team from 4 to 5, and reserved by Y lacrosse team from 5 to 6, and then Z soccer team from 6 to 7, and so on.

    That created a problem of a different sort… when lacrosse was becoming a significant sport locally, the kids who wanted to play lacrosse couldn’t get fields from the recreation district, because there weren’t enough players. The lacrosse leagues couldn’t get players because they didn’t have any fields to play on. Meanwhile, on a part of the school property NOT managed by the recreation district, it is occasionally possible to watch the Indians play cricket. The game seems to make sense to them, although I think the majority of the observers, like me, really had no idea what was going on.

    Back in my youth, a popular game to play after school was kickball. You need a field, a ball, and players. Players, we could get. The field was right there. But the ball… if you didn’t play kickball, the ball is also known as a four-square ball, and is also often used in dodgeball. But we (kids) didn’t have one. The school did, and we could use the school’s ball during recess, but after school, it would be safely locked up in a classroom inside he building. Unless… during the last recess of the day, the player would carefully kick the ball up onto the roof of the school. We’d come in, and explain that the ball was stuck on the roof, and the teacher would tell us we’d have to wait for the building custodian to go up and get it… no idea how long that would take. Then, school would let out, one of us would climb onto the roof, retrieve the ball, and we could play until dinnertime. Someone would take the ball home, and bring it in the next morning. Kickball faded in popularity in my later years of grade school, replaced by the new fad of wallball. Wallball featured two, or sometimes four, players actually playing the game, while a line of challengers waited their turn to play. This game at the one major advantage that it could be played in the covered play area, which doesn’t get rained on during the rainy season, which correlates almost 1:1 with the school year in western Oregon and Washington. Wallball was still the most popular recess game when my daughter went to school.

  25. lollipoplover August 12, 2017 at 9:37 am #

    We recently started tending a flock of chickens- my daughter asked for them for her birthday and it’s been quite the experience. They have a coop and a large, enclosed run underneath it but they are let out to free range the fenced in yard several times a day. They love bugs and weeds and scratch and pick happily.

    The days they don’t get at least an hour of foraging and roaming are the days that egg production is way down. The girls stay in the shaded tree area of our yard and stick together for protection- their natural instincts are amazing. I think kids need this free time too…unstructured and open to roaming.

  26. Papilio August 12, 2017 at 6:48 pm #

    Wow, homework ineffective all the way up to 9th grade? I thought it was up until age 12 or so – which in the school system here quite neatly corresponds to the first year of secondary school. It’s also in 7th and 8th grade that English lessons really take off (some primary schools spend a lot of time teaching English, others don’t. Mine didn’t really) and French and German lessons start, and I can’t really see how that would be all that effective if kids don’t learn at least vocabulary at home, and stuff like ‘ais ais ait ions iez aient’, and ‘der des dem den’.

  27. Mya Greene August 12, 2017 at 10:03 pm #

    I feel like homework should be customizable to each student. I could see this working, where suggested practice work is outlined, and the students are taught over time to do as much practice as is necessary, and be able to figure out when they have done enough. Students would learn this self-regulation by learning how to improve their test grades with guidance of the teacher, and the teacher could curve the class significantly in the early years to account for the time needed to learn the responsibility.

    A blanket homework amount or age will never work. There are always going to be people who understand things with very little practice, and those who need tons.

  28. Diane August 12, 2017 at 11:06 pm #

    With homework I think it’s the opportunity costs that bother me. Many times a child who is slower to grasp skills and can benefit from more practice, will benefit even more from the time spent playing with her peers and interacting with her family in positive ways.
    Struggling kids do need more practice, but it needs to be done in smaller groups and one-on-one teaching, during school hours. That don’t cut into the poor kid’s recess.
    Of course this is a whole nother topic than the one addressed in the original article.

  29. pentamom August 12, 2017 at 11:47 pm #

    Mya Greene, brava on the brain development thing. I get weary of hearing that trotted out by people who really known nothing of neuroscience (not that I do, either) just to justify their pet view on what kids aren’t able to or shouldn’t have to do.

  30. Rachel August 13, 2017 at 8:25 pm #

    I think youth sports are to blame more than technology. My kids aren’t into sports and we live in a lovely neighborhood. Often after school there is no one around to play with because they are all at sports. When they are home sports are the only language they speak. There aren’t any games of imagination. It will be interesting to see what happens in middle school and every kid can’t be on the team.

    I also think the competitive nature of youth sports sends the message that if you’re not great at it – it isn’t worth doing. I know that competition ruined my sport for me (diving). My coach cared about all the fine details so I could win. I just wanted to do a skill well enough to move to the next one. I eventually quit because my coach wouldn’t let me be ok with being ok. I’m not one of those “everyone needs a trophy” types. I just wanted to jump off the board, it was no fun constantly having to compare my self to others constantly. My favorite meet of the year was the one I was guaranteed to lose to an Olympic class athlete.

    My husband coached youth soccer in college and confirms that parents attitudes about winning are part of the problem. Only the winners get to have fun. What does that tell kids when there always have to be more losses than wins in a normal life?